Number 1


A question from my favorite social studies teacher in high school:
How does it feel to be in the country that is now vying for the Number 1 position, and seemingly doing a good job of it?

I wrote back:

It feels very interesting. There is absolutely massive growth, which is captured in a pun, “What is the national bird of China?” “The ‘crane.’” But more striking to me is the inequality. Here is a brief version of my take of employment in China.

1. Demand by workers for factory jobs is extremely high. Lots of surplus labor.

2. Rather than pushing down wages and increasing employment, wages have risen so that (1) workers in factories will do anything to keep their jobs because the alternative (unemployment) is so poor and (2) the giving out of jobs can be a political tool.

3. That being said, the wages that Chinese are earning are so small that profit margins are huge and some people are becoming very, very rich. Very few people can admit that they are rich (Fortune’s annual publication of a list of the richest Chinese is always followed by arrests for corrpution or escapes out of the country).

4. The situation in the countryside is so bad that every able bodied person under 40 has left the farms for the cities in hopes of finding a good-paying factory job but knowing that they’ll probably just receive menial construction work in the cities at about the level of income that they would receive from farming.

Anyway, those are a bit scattered, but that’s what I’m thinking about now. Growth in the industrial sectors is not a problem. It is agriculture and inequality which must keep the leaders in Beijing up at night.

But at some level this ducked the question and turned it into another opportunity to think about my own research (I have a future as an academic!).

The question was on the idea of being number one and the drive to become the dominant player in the international scene. I do not study nationalism (but the insightful Jessica Weiss does and so I have heard informed commentary on the matter). Many people say the CCP is staking its legitimacy on nationalism to replace communist ideology in the reform era. The content and implications of “staking its legitimacy on nationalism” remain very unclear (wait for Weiss 2007!).

And even more than that, the question was about what my gut reaction is to the fact that China seems increasingly likely to overtake the United States as the dominant world power in the next 50 years or so. Before answering (still!), let me say that China feels unstable, and for me much of that is due to the rapid pace of change and the inequality. I cannot see how such an unequal society could survive, but one could travel to ghettos in both the cities and in the rural US. So, I am still not convinced that everything will not collapse.

Ok, so, how does the fact that ‘China’s rise’ seems increasingly likely to be real make me feel?
Good professionally – social scientists with an understanding of China will face increased demand in such a world.
Good culinarily – better Chinese food in the States and healthier Chinese food in China.
Worried geo-politically – see potential collapse above and any analogy between the rise of China and pre-WWI or interwar Germany.

But in general, I feel uncomfortable with China’s rise. Because there are limits on freedom, most silly [such as how I can’t go to] but clearly there for a reason. Policing the internet and censoring the media is costly and limits the ability of people to learn what is going on in their world. Limiting the freedom of speech undermines basic human liberty. Whether Sen’s dictum, “democracies don’t have famines” holds is an empirical question, but representative democracy for all its faults is the best we’ve got on this pale blue dot of a world. If a non-democracy became #1, I worry that demagogues and opportunists would hold it up as a model to follow for all of the wrong reasons.

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